Karl Muck was born into a household in which amateur music-making was valued: by the age of eleven he was playing the piano in chamber music recitals, and he also played the violin in a symphony orchestra. He studied philology at the Universities of Heidelberg and Leipzig, gaining a doctorate in 1880, the year in which he also made his debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra as the soloist in a piano concerto by Scharwenka. Although he had received little formal training in conducting he began his musical career as a chorusmaster at Zürich, subsequently holding posts in Salzburg, Brno, and Graz before becoming first conductor at the German Theatre in Prague in 1886.
This company was managed by Angelo Neumann, who had acquired much stage equipment from the Bayreuth Festival in 1882, and here Muck made his name as an interpreter of the music of Richard Wagner. His performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle gained especial praise, and in 1889 he gave the first, highly influential, performances of this work in Russia. He was appointed first conductor at the Berlin Court Opera in 1892, alongside Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter; and between 1894 and 1911 he appeared as a guest conductor at the Gorlitz music festivals in Silesia, conducted Wagner at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and (from 1901 onwards) was the regular conductor of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival. Between 1903 and 1906, Muck conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and in 1908 he was appointed chief conductor at the Berlin Court Opera, one of the most significant conducting appointments in Germany at this time. His operatic repertoire was large: at Berlin he conducted one hundred and three operas in over a thousand performances.
In 1906 Muck first visited America, when he took up the appointment of chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; his predecessors here had included Nikisch. Having initially held this post until 1908, he was succeeded for four years by Max Fiedler, after which he held it again from 1912 until 1918. Although the Boston orchestra was recognised as one of the finest in the USA prior to Muck’s appointment, his implacable discipline and outstanding musical taste made it pre-eminent. It became the first orchestra to make gramophone recordings, for the Victor Company at Camden, New Jersey, in 1917. However, the entry of the USA into World War I in the same year generated acute anti-German feelings: German-language classes were dropped from school curricula, German textbooks banned, streets, parks, schools, and even towns were re-named, and statues of Goethe and Schiller were vandalised. In this fevered climate Muck’s refusal to conduct The Star-Spangled Banner in concert resulted in his being arrested and interned in 1918 until the conclusion of hostilities. After returning to Europe, Muck guest-conducted in Munich and Amsterdam before taking up in 1922 his final appointment as chief conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, a post which he retained until 1933. He made his final appearance at Bayreuth in 1930, conducting Parsifal, and conducted his last concert in Leipzig on the fiftieth anniversary of Wagner’s death (1933). On his own final birthday in 1940, he was presented with the Order of the German Eagle by Hitler.
Muck insisted on absolute fidelity to the written score, and avoided the subjective romanticism of contemporaries such as Oskar Fried, although he favoured the music of Mahler. His interpretations were typified by unwavering tempi and precise rhythm, and his musical strictness in rehearsal and performance was also reflected in a quick temper and fierce wit. As well as being one of the most outstanding interpreters of Wagner of his generation, he performed the symphonies of Bruckner with distinction, and in Boston presented new works by Debussy, Schoenberg and Sibelius. After his acoustic recordings of 1917 he did not make any further recordings until, following the advent of electrical recording, the British Columbia Graphophone Company persuaded him to record excerpts from Parsifal in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus during the 1927 Festival. The difficulties encountered in persuading Muck to make these recordings were rewarded with performances and recorded sound which were both of exceptional quality for the period. These recordings were soon followed by excerpts from Act III of Parsifal and other operas by Wagner, which were made for the rival HMV company in Berlin between December 1927 and November 1929. Once again the standard achieved was high, as may be heard in their reincarnations on CD. Muck’s apparent fierceness of character should not obscure his sensitivity as an interpreter. A critic of 1917, writing in The New York Times and quoted in Holmes, Conductors on Record (London, 1982), described his account of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 as ‘A reading full of life, of sinuous grace in the first movement, of immense vigor in the third and last movements, of lovely sentiment in the andante: everywhere of beautiful color and subtle adjustment of the instrumental voices, of finely tuned and pregnant phrasing, of subtle nuancing of tempo’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).